Welcome to Real-Life Renos, where we’re pulling back the curtains to the home renos we just can’t get enough of. Tag along as our favorite designers, chefs, and cookbook authors welcome us inside their spaces and share the behind-the-scenes stories behind their transformations. We’ll explore their takes on sustainable living, how they express their identities through design, how they create beautiful spaces that center around accessibility—and so much more.
At first it was only a daydream to own a farmhouse in Japan.
The one I fell for is a century-old kominka set among fallow rice fields at the edge of Yamanaka Onsen, a hot spring town in Ishikawa. Its tile roof echoes the rusty colors of indigenous elm and maple leaves lighting up the valley in autumn. Its wooden siding is weathered dark grey, reinforced in places by corrugated metal with a patina of rust and faded green paint. Tall plumes of susuki grass and stands of goldenrod have taken over the neglected agricultural land around it, providing cover for wild boars that dig pits in search of tubers and grubs, then retreat into forests of oak and cypress that cloak the misty mountains. The kominka is not built on the landscape so much as into it and of it.
I found my place in the community of Yamanaka the past few years while writing a book—Water, Wood, and Wild Things—about its material culture. Growing rice, practicing tea ceremony, working in a sake brewery, and gathering wild vegetables under the guidance of mentors started as research, but became my life. Gradually, my husband (Tokyo-born and -raised, but a New Yorker for more than two decades) warmed to the idea of returning to Japan, a country he left deliberately toward the end of its decadent bubble years. Our Yamanaka home will be a base for foraging, farming, and welcoming guests to cook and eat together.
Tall plumes of susuki grass and stands of goldenrod have taken over the neglected agricultural land around it, providing cover for wild boars that dig pits in search of tubers and grubs, then retreat into forests of oak and cypress that cloak the misty mountains. The kominka is not built on the landscape so much as into it and of it.
We’re buying that dream house—which has been empty for years and needs repairs—for the cost of a new economy car. Old houses have little economic value in Japan, and it is expensive to remodel a kominka into the kind of contemporary home that most people want. To live close to nature is a beautiful idea, but moving into the kominka we’ll face the uncomfortable reality of little protection from cold winters or frightening insects like sparrow bees (also called “murder hornets”) and mukade (giant centipedes).
My challenge is to plan a renovation that makes the house more comfortable and easier to maintain, respects its traditional construction of joinery and natural materials, and takes into account accelerating climate change. I want to turn it into an eco-house (an eco-minka, if you will.) But a kominka is already a model of sustainable living. As architect-writers like Yoshihiro Takishita and Azby Brown have described, kominka are built in a style shaped over millennia by the geography, climate, and natural resources of Japan. It would be a shame to make my house look and feel like a modern Western home inside the shell of a kominka, and to lose the functional advantages of its design.
I admire the rustic farmhouse house where my friend Mika Horie makes photographic artwork and teaches papermaking—with its tattered paper screens, coarse mud-plastered walls, and sliding glass doors that make the fields beyond feel like part of her studio. With the carpenter-turned-designer Kuniharu Murai, she preserved its wabi-sabi charm while bringing in light and warmth. There’s much I can learn from books and blogs, but (like Mika) I’ll need the help of specialized professionals for some projects.
Before handing over the house, the owner helped me clear out furniture and clutter that I wouldn’t need; I could keep whatever treasures I wanted. I found hand-painted ko-kutani dishes, an iron kettle, and large ceramic pickling jars. There were enough sake cups to throw a party for 50 people (an elderly neighbor told me this house used to host weddings and funerals for the village). Mulberry trees outside and a blackened bamboo rack in the warmest room on the second floor were clues that the family cultivated silkworms. The house is full of stories about how it was lived in—and how to best live in this place. Here are some that I’m learning:
Heat the person, not the space
The contemporary concept of an ecologically sound building is one that is well insulated and sealed, so minimal energy is lost in heating and cooling. But a kominka operates on a different principle: Airflow is encouraged to prevent mold during rainy seasons, and to make the space bearable during humid summer months. In the front room there used to be an open hearth called an irori, for burning charcoal. In the room to the left is a pit for a kotatsu, a table with a charcoal heater underneath and a blanket draping down from all four sides (an electric version doubles as a coffee table in the modern, but chilly, apartment where I’ve lived while writing my book). The irori and kotatsu are natural gathering places, and embody a principle common in East Asia: Heat the person, not the space.
Heating with charcoal wouldn’t be great for my asthmatic lungs or the ozone layer, and I’m not a big fan of the electric or kerosene heating popular in Japan (which either blows dry air or produces carbon monoxide). The high cost of installation is the only thing keeping me from putting in a geothermal pump and heated floors (an energy-efficient system that could pay for itself within a decade by cutting my electricity bill). I don’t mind wearing thick sweaters and wool socks, but I want my home to be comfortable—especially for guests.
Make old ideas new
Originally this house might have had a clay oven called a kamado in the earthen-floor area called a doma (that is now a grimy 1960s kitchen). The sugi trees outside were planted at least 50 years ago as a source of kindling (and future lumber); the plentiful dry twigs and leaves they drop would also be good fuel for a DIY rocket mass heater.
A rocket mass heater burns more efficiently and produces less exhaust than a typical woodstove. Like a traditional Eastern or Central European masonry stove, Korean ondol, or Chinese kang bed-stove, it heats a large thermal mass (adobe, brick, or stone) that works like a heat battery, gradually transferring warmth to the room. This seems like the most affordable (and relatively environmentally friendly) way to stay warm in a drafty kominka—plus it would bring the house closer to its original form.
Use natural, biodegradable materials
Beyond the irori and kotatsu rooms, sliding paper doors and carved wooden panels, called ranma, divide a grid of four more rooms. The ceilings shine with a reddish gloss of urushi, lacquer made from tree sap. Lifting the dingy tatami, I unearthed a layer of 40-year-old newspapers covering the wide wood underfloor (in a closet was an advertisement for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics). The life of a tatami is 10 to 20 years, so my friends helped take some to the dump, before I realized the mats—made of rice straw and reeds—could be used in the garden for compost and weed suppression.
Heat and cool passively
Long, narrow porches called engawa flank the sides of the house. Deep eaves and storm doors with thin hand-poured-glass windows protect the engawa from heavy rain and snow. Translucent paper shoji screens separate the interior. In summer, the storm doors can be slid into a pocket, and the shoji replaced with reed doors that let a breeze flow across the entire house. I imagine myself napping on grassy-smelling new tatami, listening to birds sing in the garden.
To maximize passive solar gain on the south engawa, I could install tiles to collect warmth from the low winter sun, and replace the storm doors and shoji with glass sliding doors. In this region, people lean wooden scaffolds against their houses to protect windows from drifting snow. In summer I could use them as trellises for fast-growing bitter melon vines that provide shade (and food).
Consider local and renewable resources
Upstairs, two bedrooms are enclosed with 1970s faux-wood paneling, and drop ceilings hide the house’s best feature: a huge pine beam running the length of the roof. It must be an entire tree, with its strong natural curves and irregular shape intact.
I pulled down a few drop tiles to see more soot-blackened wooden beams above, and got excited about opening up the upstairs into one big room. Tearing off warped veneer revealed clean-smelling tsuchi-kabe, walls made entirely of materials that can be found nearby: earth and straw pressed into bamboo lattice. I like the rustic beauty, but wonder how I’ll feel about sweeping up dust as the mud gradually crumbles, and stink bugs that come in through the cracks.
Incorporate grey-water recycling
The house has no shower or bath (because it’s within walking distance of the public hot spring), and one toilet in a closet-sized room with baby blue fixtures and papered walls. Sewage drains into a cesspit buried in the front yard that must be pumped out by professionals at least once a year. The kitchen sinks and laundry drain into the garden, irrigating the plants with grey water; runoff joins waterways feeding the rice paddies and ultimately a river that flows to the Sea of Japan. If I don’t replace the cesspit with a modern septic system connected to every drain in the house, I’ll need to be conscientious about the amount and kind of soap and detergent I use.
Before I can install solar panels, create a teaching kitchen, or build an outdoor bath (why not?), I need to fix the leak above the stairs, and make sure I have a functional toilet. In her memoir, The View from Breast Pocket Mountain, Karen Hill Anton is frank about the hardships of maintaining a vast kominka without modern heating or plumbing—an enormous commitment that leaves little time for other work. I’m not willing to give up all my favorite comforts and conveniences: joining video calls from my laptop with colleagues overseas; eating Cup Noodles when I want to write instead of cook; making my bed fluffy and warm with a futon dryer, and taking a hot shower without planning ahead.
But researching systems for heating and wastewater management is making me aware of all the ways I use electricity and water without even thinking. My goal is not to live perfectly with zero impact, but to make deliberate and sensible choices that suit this microclimate and keep in mind the future of the planet. With each decision, I can change the kominka, or I can let it change me. My adventure with this eco-minka is just beginning, and I hope you’ll follow along.
What parts of this kominka would you preserve and what would you modernize? If you’ve renovated a 100-year-old old house, or built an eco-house, what do you wish you’d known before you started? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!